- October 26, 2006
And so the race was on. With only 6 days to cross 3 countries we had to hurry. We knew that the absolute minimum number of days needed to cross Nigeria was four. That left one day for Togo and one day for Benin. Not much time for exploring.
Getting to the border was quick and easy. Three hours along mostly smooth roads, it was a fitting reminder of what we were leaving behind. Located on the ocean, the Ghanaian side of the border was a sprawling complex of buildings and activity. After fending off a handful of “helpers,” we bounced from building to building collecting the needed stamps. First a police check (have no idea what they’re purpose was but they signed and stamped a small piece of white paper and told us to hold on to it), then customs, then immigration, then another police check. After four stops we thought we were finally through the formalities. We jumped in the truck and headed to the control gate, only to be turned back. Apparently we needed yet another stamp. So back we went, returning a short time later to give it another go. This time we had everything in order and the gatekeeper opened the gate and waved us through.
We were now officially out of Ghana. And we were now officially not in Togo. Stuck in no-man’s land, the gate to Ghana had shut behind us and the gate to Togo was locked and barred ahead. We were back in Franco-phone Africa. After parking under a huge sign that read PARKING, we got out of the truck, where we were immediately yelled at by two police officers who claimed we hadn’t stopped at their checkpoint and couldn’t park under the giant sign that read PARKING. We were friendly and apologetic, pointing out that there wasn’t anything indicating we needed to stop at the open gate. After a couple of minutes listening to the officers bark, I decided to play the “I only speak French small-small card,” which incidentally was a fairly accurate assessment of my French after two months speaking English in Ghana. They didn’t seem to warm to this either and started barking about how we were in a French speaking country now and would have to speak French, which they of course said in French and I understood. Clearly we weren’t getting anywhere with them so we decided to just smile and walk away. Problem solved.
Next stop, an immigrations official seated behind a table just outside of the customs building. There we received a similarly icy reception as he asked for our passports. We handed them over and he demanded to know where our visas were. Knowing that you can buy a 7-day transit visa at the border, we told him we needed to apply for them. This elicited an even more icy response and he demanded 15,000 CFA each and handed us two applications. We tried to haggle down the price but got nowhere. Clearly he realized he had the leverage since we were stuck between two locked gates and needed visas to get out. We filled out the applications and then went in search of someone that could exchange dollars for CFA. Finding someone was easy. Exchanging our money wasn’t. We got the typical African run around. Terrible exchange rate on $20’s. Bad exchange rate on $50’s. Fair exchange rate (after a short negotiation) on $100’s. We opted to exchange a crisp, new, albeit slightly dirty (from being in my shoe for a few days) one hundred dollar bill. This initiated the lengthy process of proving it wasn’t fake (a bit ironic since our bills were almost brand new and his looked as if they’d just been fished out of a long drop toilet and were far more likely to be counterfeit). After studying out note for what seemed like an eternity, he finally looked up and said that he wanted to show it to someone else. Always a bit risky, he wrote down the bill’s serial number and handed it to me. Sheri and I double checked it for accuracy and then gave him the OK. We then followed him through a back door in the police/customs building and out a gate that lead into the adjoining village. In the village we found a man seated in a small wooden booth. The man took the bill, studied it briefly, and then handed it back saying that it was a fake. So back to the border we went so that I could swap out my slightly dirty crisp new one hundred-dollar bill for another brand new crisp bill that had not spent time in my shoe. I handed it to him and he studied it intently before finally proclaiming that “It was real.” Perhaps it’s a simple matter of getting some Doctor Schoel’s shoe inserts. I don’t know. In any case, he handed over five 10,000 CFA notes, which we studied carefully before finalizing the exchange.
Alas, we paid the police officer and he issued our 7-day transit visas. We then passed by the customs office to have our carnet stamped and we were on our way. Similar to Ouagadougou, the roads around Lome are clogged by a wild throng of motorbikes. In my experience it’s the worst type of African driving as you’re enveloped by wave after wave of mad drivers whizzing around you from behind, both sides and in front. There are no lanes, no right of way, and no common sense. Just a sea of madmen out on daily suicide runs along with all of the requisite chickens, goats, and other animals plying for a piece of the road. And it’s your responsibility to avoid squashing all of them flat as you navigate a sprawling city like Lome. Perfect if you were really into ‘Frogger’ as a kid but always longed to be the car rather than the frog.
With no time to spare we spent the balance of the afternoon exploring Togo’s coast and the villages outside Lome. With it getting dark, we retired to Chez Alice, a long time backpacker lodge with an interesting collection of African art, good food, a friendly staff and, unfortunately, two monkeys chained up in the courtyard.